3rd Sunday in Advent

Advent 3C 2018

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Canticle 9-Isaiah 12:2-6 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  “What then should we do?”

May the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.  Amen.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, also known as Rose Sunday. We see it in the pink Advent candle that is lit today. Some churches actually have rose colored vestments for this one Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for the word “rejoice” and that theme runs through our texts this morning.  

In our reading from Zephaniah we hear the prophet telling the exiles, “Rejoice! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you…The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” 

For a people who were facing shame and oppression, for a people who had turned away from God and turned to worshipping pagan gods, for a people who wondered where the one true God was, this was indeed good news.  

To be told that God had judged them and still wanted them, that God would not hold their infidelity against them but wanted to start a new relationship with them; to be told that God wasn’t far off but was in their midst all along; how could they not rejoice over that?

In the First Song of Isaiah we hear the same message from a different prophet. “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

The message is again repeated in this morning’s epistle reading. Paul is in prison and yet he tells the new Christians at Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…the Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.” Even in the darkest hours, even when they don’t know where to turn or what will happen, even in all the uncertainty of their lives, Paul tells them to rejoice, to rejoice always regardless of the circumstances they find themselves facing.

And then we come to our gospel reading and John the Baptist. Rather than rejoicing we have insults. “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

You just cannot pretty this up, soften it, make it nice. John’s message is too Important for it to be undersold or understated. 

I don’t know about you, but if I was called a snake, and in public no less, I don’t think I would stick around to hear the rest of the message. But the crowds do! That is what I find so interesting. Something must ring true to them. John has certainly captured their attention. They must want or at least admit to some truth about what John is saying because they don’t argue the point or defend themselves. They ask a simple question: “What then should we do?” This question is repeated three times. To ask the question another way: “How then shall we live?”

John gives them very practical advice: If you have more coats than you need, give the others away to those who don’t have enough clothing to keep themselves warm. If you have enough food, share what you have with those who are hungry. Selfless generosity and compassion are signs of repentance.

Even the tax-collectors, those despised Jewish collaborators with the Romans who often extorted money from their fellow Jews, came forward to be baptized and had the same question: “What should we do?”  

John tells them to take only what is owed, no more. No skimming off the top, no strong-arming their neighbors. They were not to make themselves rich on the backs of others. Do your job with integrity and honesty. That, John tells them, is what repentance looks like.

Even the Roman soldiers asked John what they should do. Don’t flout your position, he tells them. Don’t threaten or lie about what events have taken place. Don’t make things harder for those around you. Be satisfied with what you have.   

John’s opening insult is really a way of saying: Stop running away! Face up to what is keeping you from being all God is calling you to be. Live generously now! Live with integrity now! Be compassionate now! 

This is what repentance in baptism looks like. It was what it looked like back in Palestine 2000 years ago and it is what repentance looks like today in 2018. Repentance is acted out, enfleshed, and happens in the everyday interactions we have with those around us.  

It is practical and involves what happens in our here and now. Generosity, integrity, honesty, contentment is what we do; it is how we are to live as baptized people.  

Repentance is action oriented. It is changed behavior. It is living differently because our baptisms made a difference in us and in the world. Our changed behavior is an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace bestowed on us when we were baptized. This is what we are to rejoice about. This is the “good news” that John proclaims to the crowds following him as well as to us.  

The question hasn’t changed in 2000 years. When faced with a call to repent, to change, we still ask “What should we do? How then shall we live?” The answer to the question hasn’t changed in 2000 years either. Do we need to live more generously than we have in the past? Do we need to let go of some of what we have so that someone who has less can have more?

Do we need to live with more integrity? Are we ready to make the decisions and take the risks to stand with those who can do nothing to advance our interests and career prospects? 

Do we need to live more honestly? Are we ready to learn how to speak truth in love as well as be held accountable to others?  Are we ready to listen in love for the hard messages we need to hear? That is what living honestly consists of. 

Do we need to live more contentedly? Are we ready to live with what we have or maybe even with less? Are we ready to stand in contrast to our culture’s consumer-driven getting ahead at all cost mentality? Are we willing to take the leap and redefine what success really means?

Do we need to live more focused on others? Are we ready to put others before self and sacrifice for their good?

What fruits do we need to bear? What fruits do we need to share with the world as outward signs of the grace that has transformed us? What fruits are worthy signs of our repenting and returning to God?

The good news is that we have that opportunity to repent every minute of every day. And the even better news is that we don’t do it alone. The baptized life is a life where our repentance is lived out in the company of others and with God’s help.  

This is the good news that John proclaimed to the people all those years ago and that is proclaimed to us. This is the news that is worthy of our rejoicing. So rejoice, my friends! Again, I say, rejoice!

Amen.

 1  Debi Thomas www.journeywithjesus.org 12/16/18

Robin Whittington